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Culture: a performance of identity and ideology, specifically belonging to a person or a group of people. Identity and its tenets are sacred to the group it belongs to, yet woven within the threads of identity lies a constructed, synergistic relationship of the social and historical. Historically, whiteness and its ideological tenets have sculpted the social engineering of racial hierarchies, and restricted identity development in a way that others, ignores, and degrades folks of color. This, in turn, has crunched the cultures of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities into convenient delicacies; sweet in white consumption, sour in white appropriation, exploitation, and association. Christine Miller explores this discourse in her first museum exhibit, Syrup on Watermelon, at the Portland Art Museum. Miller (she/her), hailing from Queens, NY, and currently residing in Portland, OR, provides a visual conversation and social probing of the free consumption of Blackness/Black femme identity and its culture to the receivers of her work. The commodification, cultural distillation/interpretation (by non-Black folks), and the associative stereotypes attached to the system of Black monolithic prescription (rooted in racist imagery), requires patrons to sit within their constructive discomfort.
Landscapes of power shape a society’s narrative. Imagery and art remain the most powerful tools of a narrative. When placed within an ethnocentric monocultural context, imagery exists to define the reality for those within marginalized experience. The human brain, our most powerful organ, is our decision-maker and conditioned comprehension device. And yet, it remains our most raw and porous organ—consistently subjected to vulnerability and molding. When vulnerability comes into relationship with the scalpel of dominant power, the assignment of imagery and art becomes ever present within our social and relational development. Such tools have been utilized to landscape the narrative of Blackness in myriad ways, with symbolic associations driving the decisions of what is Blackness.
Watermelon and its syrupy juiciness, beauty, and refreshing properties is known to cool the tongues, temples, and bodies of its consumer. It is a symbol of summer’s hot return: barbecues, porch hangouts, and picnics. Though, when coupled with narrative-sculpted Blackness, its juice becomes poisonous and toxic, riddled with seeds of laziness, uncleanliness, and an unwanted presence. Coupled with Blackness, its rinds portray a contradictory relationship between consumption and contempt that merges the discourse of Black American culture and enthnocentric monocultural bias. As an accessory to watermelon, the symbol of “Aunt Jemima” and her syrup, in addition to other racist-based symbols, have defined and redefined Black worth and use. Their persistent usage specifically rests within the white ideology of what Black womanhood and femmeness is. Miller’s installation activates this exchange, and she uses an untitled series of prints, depicting different variations of the eaten fruit, to moderate this conversation. Parallel to the prints are symbols of Aunt Jemima and interpreted pieces of racist imagery. At the core of these expressions lies the word liberation, printed below each variously consumed watermelon slice, as Miller uses the variety of eaten fruit to build onto the questions embedded in her past works: why are the perpetually-held associations of Blackness forced into a relationship with appropriation and exploitation? Why are Black folks (and more specifically, Black women) forced into a system of gratuity that consistently churns them out and unloves them?
At the very root of Miller’s work (past and present) is the foundation of love. Using bell hook’s framework from her 1999 book All About Love, Miller consistently poses a multitude of offerings that draw from streams of Black culture, thought, and liberation, inside a container of femininity. Within this context, liberation is the seed to the soil, the deciding factor of who is assigned the right to self-determination, power within, and more specifically, who is deemed worthy of love. Through the weaving of seeds, color, and sunflowers, Miller uses the portraits of watermelon to entwine together a story of consumption and worth, love and discard, and utilizes the framing of power within to keep racist, symbolic associations (such as Jemima) out of dominant hands.
In addition to love being a foundation for her work, much of Miller’s past projects are an extension of her sociological questionings of Black diasporic identity, and more so, why Blackness remains so wanted and unwanted at the same time. In her first curatorial experience, Brown Sugar Where We At at Tips on Failing in Portland in 2019, Miller collected a group of Black-femme artists to convey the message of Black sweetness within a feminine context. The group show featured a variety of works ranging from altarist poetry to macrame-woven plant holders made of synthetic hair–an ode to Black hair care. The show posed many of the same questions woven throughout Miller’s previous projects: Why are we so wanted and unwanted?
Peppered throughout Syrup on Watermelon, written small scriptures, numbers, and quotes convey symbolism to Miller’s familial ties, upbringing, and self exploration. A receiver may not always comprehend the messaging behind these hiddenlings, and Miller’s future work may benefit from a deeper exploration of the “why” behind her questions, and an observation of how contemporary racial scopes and Black power challenge and break the insidious associations of imagery in time’s past.
Christine Miller: Syrup on Watermelon
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR
Aug 7, 2021 – Oct 30, 2022
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